With less than two months to go until The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list is announced in Bilbao, it’s the perfect time to discover some of the lesser-known culinary gems of one of the Basque Country’s most exciting cities. Eneko Atxa, chef-owner of Azurmendi, just outside Bilbao, gives us his insider tips for a gastronomic trip.
“In the Basque country, we’re always thinking about eating and drinking,” says Eneko Atxa. “It’s like a religion for us.” He would know – born in the town of Amorebieta in the Basque Country, he recalls the times when, as a kid, he would go to visit the city with his family. “Our family didn’t have a car, so we took the train to Bilbao. In 20 minutes we would arrive to Atxuri neighbourhood, an old and beautiful part of the town, and from there we would head to the market, Mercado de la Ribera.”
Atxa has a special relationship with markets: he says that they are an emblematic part of every town. “Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing I do is to go to the market. From there, I can better understand the culture of the place, how the local people live gastronomy and also how they relate to each other."
The Basque Country has a special relationship with food: the classic gastronomic offering called pintxos, for instance, is present on every street, while in the area there are also many world-renowned restaurants, among which 50 Best mainstays Asador Etxebarri, Mugaritz and Arzak. Atxa, who heads restaurant Azurmendi, compares Bilbao’s gastronomic scene to his favourite museums in town: the Fine Arts Museum and the world-famous Guggenheim.
“Our gastronomic offering shows that we know how to respect our traditions, while at the same time we also know how to innovate. Both museums exist next to each other and both are needed. Our gastronomic scene is the same,” he says.
“Everyone knows the famous, haute-cuisine restaurants around here – what is more interesting are the places that are still kept secret. It’s beautiful to discover them.” Here are his recommendations.
Best for breakfast:
Henao Kalea, 18, 48009 Bilbao
“I love to eat tortilla de patatas (Spanish tortilla) for breakfast, and this place makes a great one. It comes accompanied by a piece of bread, like a pintxo. My favourite is the one with onion, but they have a great selection of tortillas made fresh throughout the whole morning.”
Best for coffee:
Colon de Larreategui, 13, 48001 Bilbao
“Near the wonderful Albia Gardens, this authentic café has classic décor and delicious coffee. It’s big, popular and great for families. They also serve pintxos at the bar and, in the afternoon, they have a Moroccan cook who prepares unique Moroccan bites.”
Best for traditional Basque cuisine:
Mazarredo Zumarkalea, 20, 48009 Bilbao
“Chef Guillermo is the talented cook at this restaurant, which makes tasty traditional cuisine. You can find ancestral recipes such as chipirones en su tinta (squid in its ink), bacalao al pilpil (Spanish cod with pil pil sauce) or bacalao a la vizcaina (Biscay-style cod). He works with the freshest seasonal produce – something as simple as a tomato salad, made with the fresh tomatoes from Guillermo’s own organic vegetable garden, is world class.”
Don Diego López Haroko Kale Nagusia, 66, 48011 Bilbao
“Another great place is Guria, the restaurant of the late legendary chef Jenaro Pildain – this is the home of the bacalao (cod) by excellence.”
Best for dinner:
Henao Kalea, 31, 48009 Bilbao
“Owned by a family with Basque roots, this restaurant has its own specialties, such as the revuelto con patatas (scrambled eggs with potatoes). They also have great meat and traditional dishes.”
Best for cocktails:
La Mula de Moscú
Alameda de Recalde, 15, 48009 Bilbao
“It’s a quiet, relaxed bar where the real highlight are the cocktails. I like fresh, light cocktails, but the best thing you can do is to ask the bartenders what they recommend – a professional always knows how to give you the best they have.”
Best for wine:
Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, 55, 48013 Bilbao
“When our local team, Athletic Bilbao, is playing, this is one the places where fans like me like to go. It has a great selection of wines, as well as snacks to accompany them. They also have txakoli, or traditional Basque wine. I think there really is a ‘message in the bottle’ with txakoli – the wine tells you about our territory and our culture, it’s a way to express who we are.”
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list will be announced at an awards ceremony in Bilbao on Tuesday 19th June. Follow the livestream on our Facebook page and follow us on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter for more photos, videos and chef interviews.